Yes, the calf born in minus-40 weather gets priority. But the farmer also has to take care to make sure she or he avoids frostbite

For some reason our family seems to be blessed with only having calves born on the coldest day of the winter. This year was no different. The first calf was born January 4, a day with -40C wind chills.

We know we don’t have to calf in the cold weather, but we find that it works best for us. We have found over the years that spring calves are much more prone to scours and pneumonia, and I need the barn in the spring for our lambs and kids. As much as it is scary to have calves accidentally not born in the barn, the sheep and goats just wouldn’t be able to survive in January if they were born outside. Therefore we have to make sure both man and beasts are safe.

Our beef herd calves in our barn. We lock the cows in calving pens made from cattle panels. If they calve inside, the cow usually takes care of the calf herself. There is excitement when one of the girls surprises us and pops out a calf on the straw pack. In that case, the focus is on the calf. It has to be brought inside and blow-dried quickly (always being careful not to hurt their eyes). Then we put earmuffs on and get it suckling as fast as possible.

This year it came to me that we really should take a moment and discuss how to keep the people from freezing. After all, if the farmers’ hands get frostbitten, they aren’t going to be able to care for the cattle.

One reason farmer safety started niggling in my mind is because my husband has asthma. Deep breathing in frigid Manitoba winter weather — like that experienced when carrying calves to the barn — is very bad for his lungs. The other concern is that our 19-year-old is taking the night shift, which means he is alone from midnight to 4:00 am and he has to walk about a quarter-mile one way to check the cow herd. So what could we do to make sure that both people and cattle are cared for?

THE NIGHTWATCH CARRIES A CELL PHONE

The first thing we did was determine the range for our cell phone. Our reception in Narcisse is usually bad. In the past we have tried many different brands of two-way radios and none has worked. Apparently though on frigid days we can call the house from the straw pack. This means that if my husband needs help, he just has to call. If there has been a surprise calf then we can grab our homemade calf sled and run to him. This saves time. Instead of him having to walk back to the house, get the sled, get help and go back to the cows, he can get a pair of ear muffs on the calf and start rubbing the calf with straw to get it’s blood flowing and not stress his lungs in the cold.

At night we can sleep well knowing that if our son has trouble he can call the house and someone will be there right away. If he finds a cow calving, he can call the house for help and start moving her to the barn while help gets the barn open. This saves a lot of valuable time, and it is much easier to move the calf while it is still in its mother.

The other area that we need to address is our homemade calf sled. My husband made it out of a refrigerator door a few years ago. He smoothed any areas that could cut a calf and used duct tape to cover those that wouldn’t smooth. We padded it with a burlap sack filled with wool and made the tug ropes out of braided baling twine. The problem we have found is that if the calf is already standing, which happens quickly with Angus cattle, it takes two people to get the calf to the barn. It requires one to pull the sled the other one to keep the calf on the sled while watching that the momma cow is following. For now we have found that if you centre a double bed sheet on the sled, place the calf on it, then wrap the calf securely, it helps keep the calf on the sled and protects it a bit from the wind.

For the future, my idea is to use a small cargo net that I have seen on sale at Princess Auto for about $4. I am concerned the size of the holes might be too large.

Another area to consider in the winter is water supply. We were having plumbing issues in the house and my husband had to turn off the water from the pump. Our outside and inside water all run out of one well, so that meant that the outside waterer was involved also. We were without water for a few hours while my husband fixed some leaking elbows in the house plumbing. By chore time, our waterer was frozen. The cows had come to drink while the pump was turned off and drained the system. We quickly got it working again by pouring hot water into the water bowl but it taught us a lesson. If the pump is off we have to close the gate so that none of the animals can drink in the winter. It is never fun to work with water in -40C wind chills.

Hopefully the worst of the winter is over and everyone’s calves are frolicking in the paddocks. All of us love to watch the babies run at top speed across the paddocks, tail over their backs and enjoying the sun. Please remember to keep yourselves warm this winter, not just the cows and calves.

Debbie Chikousky farms at Narcisse, Man.

E-mail her at [email protected]

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